The Walt Disney Co. is preparing today to give the public its first official look at plans for a billion-dollar theme park the entertainment giant is thinking of building in Long Beach--a project that could turn that tax-poor city into a tourist boom town.
Even before Disney has made up its mind that Long Beach is the right place for its new amusement park, fears of traffic, smog--and to some extent, the powerful Disney corporation itself--have Long Beach residents wondering if their back yard is the right place for Disney.
Perhaps for the first time in the Disney corporation’s history, observers say, Mickey is being asked to prove he’s a mouse and not a rat.
“Walt, bless his heart, is dead. And this is not the corporation it once was,” said Nelson Wysong of the Second District Neighborhood Assn., one of about 80 neighborhood groups and businesses taking a look at Disney.
Disney has announced it will build a sophisticated second West Coast park in either Long Beach or Anaheim, pitting the two cities in a bidding war to be Southern California’s next big tourist stop.
The corporation has been scouting more than 300 acres of prime property in the Port of Long Beach for months and retains exclusive negotiating rights on the valuable property--256 acres of it under water. To keep its rights to the land alive, Disney was required to submit by today plans for the park it envisions for the port city.
A Disney official said last week that an Anaheim park could be modeled after the highly successful Epcot Center in Florida. No decision on either site is expected soon.
While Long Beach City Hall seems clearly in favor of a Disney development that could mean millions of tax dollars for the community, some residents aren’t so sure.
Such a cool reception is new to Disney officials, who were greeted with open arms and blank checks years ago when they built Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney World in Orlando, Fla., experts said.
The most vocal neighborhood critics represent a fraction of the city’s nearly half a million residents, but they come mostly from the affluent east side of town and have been known to wield political influence on some issues.
In addition to concerns about crowds and the attendant unpleasantries they can bring, residents object to spending a penny to build roads or other improvements to accommodate a Disney park. Disney officials have made it clear that there will be no project if the city isn’t willing to share such costs.
“Why in the world would we want to give money to a company that has more money than they know what to do with?” said Karen Pilcher, president of the Rose Park Neighborhood Group.
Few residents say they are flatly opposed to Disney. But if an amusement park goes up in Long Beach, they say, it must be on their terms.
“Importing blondes from Huntington Beach is not our idea of providing local jobs,” neighborhood leader Stanley Green said. “And dreadlocks don’t exactly fit into the Disney dress code.”
Neighborhood leaders insist that Disney give most of the estimated 10,000 amusement park jobs to local people, mitigate problems caused by tourist traffic, and vow to be a “good corporate neighbor.”
The response in Long Beach appears to have taken Disney by surprise.
“It’s the first time I am aware that we’ve had to approach a project in quite this fashion,” said David Malmuth, Disney’s project director for the proposed Long Beach park. He said Disney understands community concerns and that the residents’ skepticism would not necessarily tip the scales toward Anaheim.
Malmuth said the comments just reinforce the need for what Disney was already planning, that the company “be willing to listen and try to understand the community’s concerns.”
Malmuth, himself a Long Beach resident, has scheduled a series of community meetings for next month that seem intended to both explain the plans dreamed up by a team of “imagineers” and repair the damage from recent beatings Disney has taken in the press.
In Orlando, home of Disney World, a local newspaper dubbed Disney “the grinch that stole affordable housing” after it won $57 million in tax-free bonds intended for the poor and used them to update the park’s sewage system. Government leaders there were already complaining that Disney had inspired massive growth, then turned its back on gridlocked roads and the housing crunch that came with it.
In Long Beach, several employees of the Disney-owned Queen Mary were recently fired for refusing to shave off their mustaches.
In Hollywood, Disney has developed a reputation for waging hard-line copyright infringement wars over characters like Peter Pan.
“We’ve read what they did in Orlando and we know what they did to employees with mustaches when they took over the Queen Mary,” said Pilcher. “It’s not that we’re against them coming to town, it’s just that we know what that means--this isn’t the ‘50s anymore.”
No one disputes that Disney genius took Orlando and Anaheim from sleepy orange groves to two of the world’s most lucrative tourist spots.
“I think we have been in Anaheim and Orlando an excellent corporate neighbor. We’ve done a lot for those communities,” Malmuth said.
Some would say Long Beach, more than 100 years old and working hard to shake its downtrodden image, is in no position to argue.
The city is plagued by a woeful tax base and hasn’t been able to support a shopping mall. Meanwhile, crime is skyrocketing, downtown high-rises sit half empty, and tourists all but ignore the coastal town to spend weekends in Newport Beach and San Diego.
“The residents should take an active part, and I applaud their concern. But we should be careful to keep our eye on the bull’s-eye,” said Councilman Wallace Edgerton, who generally favors the Disney development.
“To solve problems like crime, traffic or the needs of the poor, it takes money. And that’s the bottom line: Disney will bring money to this city.”
Today, Disney intends to make public what it envisions for Long Beach, plans it has so far revealed only to select city and port officials during closed meetings.
Whether one of the world’s most powerful corporations, one of the nation’s biggest ports, the Long Beach City Hall, and the representatives of about 50 neighborhoods that make up the city can come to terms on those plans remains to be seen.
Resident Michael Humphrey, president of the Belmont Heights Community Assn., said: “If not, so be it. Everybody always went, ‘Oh my, my, here comes Disney.’ Well, Long Beach might snub its nose at Disney. Who knows? We may see history in the making.”